How to Start an Argument: The Monty Hall Problem

[Photo by MontyPython.]

You can get a good argument going in almost any group of people with the infamous Monty Hall problem:

Imagine you are on a TV game show, and the host lets you choose between three closed doors. One of the doors hides a fancy sports car, and if you pick that door, you win the car.

You pick door #1.

The host opens door #3 to reveal a goat. Then he gives you a chance to switch your door for the unopened door #2.

Should you switch?

What if you say you’re going to switch, and then the host offers to give you $5,000 instead of whatever is behind door #2?

Try the game for yourself at the Stay or Switch website.

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Math History Tidbits: The Battling Bernoullis

July 27th is Alex’s birthday. She shares it with Johann Bernoulli, an irascible mathematician from the late 17th century. This coincidence intrigued her enough that she wrote a research paper on Johann and his mathematical brother, titled “Jeering Jacob and Jealous Johann.”

Of course, to make the alliteration work, she had to mispronounce Johann’s name — but she figured he kinda deserved that. Read the historical tidbits below to find out why one writer said the Bernoulli brothers were “the kind of people who give arrogance a bad name.”*

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Probability Issue: Hints and Answers

Alexandria JonesRemember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer soon afterward. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. So if you haven’t worked these problems yet, go back to the original posts. If you’re stuck, read the hints. Then go back and try again. Figure them out for yourself — and then check the answers just to prove that you got them right.

This post offers hints and answers to puzzles from these blog posts:

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Probability and Baby Blues

[Photo by audi_insperation.]

[In The Birthday Surprise, Alex discovered her family was expecting a new member...]

What will the baby look like, Alex wondered. “Dad, is there any way to tell whether the baby will have blue eyes like I do, or brown like the rest of the family?”

Dr. Jones shuffled the papers on his desk and found a blank page. “Over 100 years ago, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel studied genetics, or how various traits are passed down from one generation to another.” He began to draw a diagram as he talked.

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Alexandria Jones and the Birthday Surprise

[Photo by D Sharon Pruitt.]

[July 27th is Alex’s birthday, which she shares with Johann Bernoulli, an irascible mathematician from the late 17th century.]

The guests had gone. Alex and her family sat around the table, sharing the last tidbits of birthday cake and ice cream. Alex smiled at her parents.

“Thanks, Mom and Dad,” she said. “It was a great party.”

Maria Jones, Alex’s mother, leaned back in her chair. “I do have one more surprise for you, Alex. But you will have to share this one with the whole family.”

Leon groaned. “I know what it is: Let’s all pitch in to clean up.”

“That wouldn’t be a surprise,” Alex said.

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Quotations XXIV: Probability

[Photo by Micah Sittig.]

I used to fill the margins of my math newsletter with quotations and tidbits of math history. Here are some quotes from the July/August 1999 issue on probability, along with a few others I’ve stumbled on while browsing the internet.

No knowledge of probabilities helps us to know what conclusions are true. There is no direct relation between the truth of a proposition and its probability.

John Maynard Keynes

The 50-50-90 rule: Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong.

Andy Rooney

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Free Online Math for Middle School and Up


The Art of Problem Solving people recently announced their new Alcumus program, which provides online lessons on assorted math topics, including probability and combinatorics, which most math textbooks do not cover well, if at all.

Update October 2011:

Alcumus currently complements our Introduction to Algebra, Introduction to Counting & Probability, Introduction to Number Theory, and Prealgebra textbooks, as well as our Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Introduction to Counting & Probability, Introduction to Number Theory, and Prealgebra 1 online courses. We expect to continue to expand topics in Alcumus.

AoPS Alcumus information page

I am signing up all my MathCounts students. If you’re a homeschooler, we would love to have you join us!

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Math Club: Counting 101

[Fature photo above by ThunderChild tm.]

The last couple of weeks, in Math Club, we’ve been learning to count. My new set of MathCounts students have never heard of combinatorics, so we started at the very beginning:

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Reading to Learn Math

[Photo by Betsssssy.]

Do you ever take your kids’ math tests? It helps me remember what it is like to be a student. I push myself to work quickly, trying to finish in about 1/3 the allotted time, to mimic the pressure students feel. And whenever I do this, I find myself prone to the same stupid mistakes that students make.

Even teachers are human.

In this case, it was a multi-step word problem, a barrage of information to stumble through. In the middle of it all sat this statement:

…and there were 3/4 as many dragons as gryphons…

My eyes saw the words, but my mind heard it this way:

…and 3/4 of them were dragons…

What do you think — did I get the answer right? Of course not! Every little word in a math problem is important, and misreading even the smallest word can lead a student astray. My mental glitch encompassed several words, and my final tally of mythological creatures was correspondingly screwy.

But here is the more important question: Can you explain the difference between these two statements?

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Puzzle: Random Blocks

Red block puzzle

In the first section of George Lechner’s Creative Problem Solving in School Mathematics, right after his obligatory obeisance to George Polya (see the third quote here), Lechner poses this problem. If you have seen it before, be patient — his point was much more than simply counting blocks.

A wooden cube that measures 3 cm along each edge is painted red. The painted cube is then cut into 1-cm cubes as shown above. How many of the 1-cm cubes do not have red paint on any face?

And then he challenges us as teachers:

Do you have any ideas for extending the problem?
If so, then jot them down.

This is strategically placed at the end of a right-hand page, and I was able to resist turning to read on. I came up with a list of 15 other questions that could have been asked — some of which will be used in future Alexandria Jones stories. Lechner wrote only seven elementary-level problems, and yet his list had at least two questions that I had not considered. How many can you come up with?

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Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers. People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement. The conclusion simply isn’t valid.

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Math Quotes V: A Man Is Like a Fraction…

[Rescued from my old blog.]

The blackboard quotes for my math class have been a bit more philosophical the last few weeks:

A good problem should be more than a mere exercise; it should be challenging and not too easily solved by the student, and it should require some “dreaming” time.

—Howard Eves
An Introduction to the History of Mathematics

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